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Leadership lessons from my 13 year old who accidentally became a climate change leader

Leadership lessons from my 13 year old

When police threatened to arrest a 13-year-old carrying a placard, they minted a brand new #climatechange leader.

If you do not comply, you will be moved on and force may be used against you. Do you understand me?

That would be pretty confronting for anyone to hear. Coming from a fully-armoured Riot Cop, even more so. If you’re hearing it as a 13 year old, armed only with a piece of cardboard, I imagine it would be close to terrifying. I know I was pretty close to terrified because the 13-year-old in this picture is my youngest daughter, Izzy.

Here’s the full clip of the incident, (captured by student journalist River McCrossen) which occurred December 10 in the wake of a peaceful climate action protest held in front of Kirribilli House in 40-degree heat — as bushfires ate the country, and while our PM relaxed on a beach in Hawaii.

It’s worth a click, because there’s a moment in the clip that any parent would recognise. It’s when Izzy’s eyes narrow, she swallows her tears and squares her jaw.

She’s giving the police a look that says:

I hear you, I understand you have the power in this situation, but I think what you’re saying is complete bullshit. Just you wait, mister.

Let me tell you now: they pissed off the wrong 13-year-old.

That moment kicked off a pretty surreal, hot, hazy, political summer for the both of us as Izzy became a face of the student protest movement and I became her accidental manager. It also began a crash-course in leadership for Izzy, who had only been to one protest previously, and in political activism for me**.

As I tried to help Izzy navigate the media requests, live interviews, speaking engagements, ambassadorship offers, activist meetings, court appearances, photo-ops with politicians and more, I saw her tackle a lot of the same challenges many young, talented people face when they are called up to lead their peers.

If you’ve been blessed/cursed with a sudden promotion, new leadership role or big opportunity, here’s a little of what’s coming at you:

1. Your friend circle will get bent out of shape

When your peers looked at you before, they just saw you. Now they see you, and your title. You can still be friends with your peers, but it’s important to also find new professional peers, other people in situations similar to yours. Izzy experienced some strange and uncomfortable reactions from her friend group, but she also pursued connections with other student organisers and activists, finding advice and support. For once, I was happy to let my teen spend time chatting on social media, finding her tribe.

2. People will expect you to have all the answers

Whether they’re genuinely in need of guidance or they’re a little jealous and testing you, people with questions will just keep on coming. Carve out some regular time for yourself to do your homework. Invest in your own education and prioritise the topics people are looking to you for.

Although it was supposed to be her summer holidays, Izzy started doing homework on the issue, including reading Sally Rugg’s excellent new book on activism “How powerful we are.” By the same token, it’s okay to not know everything. In Izzy’s case, she kept getting asked by journalists how she planned to solve climate change. Cool as a cucumber, she reminded them that it shouldn’t be the job of our children to fix the mistakes made by adults.

3. You won’t be able do it all on your own

This lesson was as much for me as anyone. The media requests came thick and fast, including from foreign broadcasters we weren’t familiar with. The offer to speak with one particularly high-profile UK personality presented a real conundrum – the potential exposure was immense, but this individual had a history of being openly antagonistic to people (including kids) they didn’t agree with.

I had to weigh up Izzy’s desire to get her message out with my job as a parent to keep her safe. I assembled an ad-hoc review panel of PR execs, lobbyists and parents of high-profile youths to help me evaluate the risks in what quickly became a politically-charged environment. If you know you’re heading into a high-pressure role, start tapping your network and assembling your personal advisory panel ahead of time.

4. People are expecting signs of leadership

Your new title might sound nice when you say it aloud, but it will lose its power very quickly unless people see you acting the part. Don’t be afraid to put it on display, merchandise it, especially early on. It’s up to you to set the tone for your leadership.

When The Guardian got in touch that very afternoon and asked her to write about her experience, Izzy was tired, hot and still a little bit shell-shocked.** But she knew it was important to follow up her placard with a more detailed message, so she bashed out a 600 word Op-ed in time to make the evening edition. (Welcome to the world of deadlines, my dear).

5. Haters gonna hate

Taking a political position is always going to invite criticism, but it pays to remember the golden rule of agency (or any business, for that matter) life: everything is political. Playing the ‘I’m just here to focus on the work’ card will just get you dealt out faster than you got invited in. Pay attention to (but don’t obsess over) your critics and tend your support base like a garden (i.e.: regularly).

Keeping the trolls at bay was my number one focus for Izzy but, thankfully they’ve mostly left her alone so far. I, on the other hand, have copped it from all manner of trolls, RWNJs, bots, Facebook commentators and everyone’s favourite gurgling drain, Miranda Devine***. It’s hard, but you simply can’t let it get to you. Make sure you spend time with your supporters to balance your perspective.

If you’re harbouring any doubt, let me spell it out for you: I’m very proud of Izzy, not only for taking a stand, but for how she’s started to navigate this new realm and her place in it. She’s had good teachers, an incredible mother and her big sister is also a great role model, but she’s mainly figuring this leadership thing for herself as she goes along.

If you’re stepping up to a leadership role, be kind to yourself. Figuring it out is the best you can hope to do, because that’s how everyone (including myself and now Izzy), has always done it.

*I hadn’t been to a rally since Peter Garrett’s first tilt at public office, fronting the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the mid 80’s.

**Full disclosure: her dad was also shell-shocked.

*** This one I actually count as a badge of honour.

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